Dogme ’95: Danish Cinema’s Daring Experiment
Sometimes called The Danish New Wave, the Dogme ‘95 movement came about in Copenhagen in March 1995 when filmmakers Thomas Vinterberg, Lars von Trier, Christian Levring and Soren Kragh-Jacobsen signed a ‘Vow of Chastity’. This consists of ten filmmaking rules which films must conform to if they want to declare themselves part of the Dogme movement. Each Dogme ‘95 film has a certificate of authenticity in its credits to prove this.
The clauses of the vow mainly relate to making the film in a natural way, including clause four, which does not allow artificial lighting, and clause one, which forbids the use of props not found at the film’s location.
In clause ten, and the final paragraph of the Vow, the director surrenders his right to credit for the film and swears to “force the truth out of my characters and settings.”
Although these rules seem restrictive, Vinterberg feels the group drew up the rules in order to liberate and inspire themselves: “I happen to be a confused and chaotic person, so I appreciate this kind of regularity,” he says. “The collective feeling arising from making the leap together is extremely stimulating for what you’re trying to do.” He also says: “The limitation turned the work into the most enjoyable and actually most liberating project I’ve ever been involved in.”
Vinterberg’s contribution to the movement was the film named as Dogme #1, Festen (1998). It documents a family celebration and features arguments, fights and actual sex, as the ‘Vow of Chastity’ does not allow any of the action to be fabricated. So, clearly, Dogme ‘95 has attracted controversy from its conception.
However, perhaps the most controversial of the Dogme films is von Trier’s The Idiots (1998). It documents the lives of a group of young people who spend their time going out into society pretending to be mentally disabled, on a quest to find their ‘inner idiots’. While this film is not for the easily offended, it is very affecting and calls the audience to reconsider their prejudices and perceptions.
Ever the provocateur, von Trier has said that acting as the ‘Idiots’ do is “a wonderful thing, something everyone should try. Every other day,” and has described the activity as refreshing “like a shower. An emotional shower.” If you can handle it, The Idiots really should be seen, but again, approach with caution.
Those two are perhaps the most well-known of the Dogme ‘95 films, but others by the original group of four directors include Kragh-Jacobsens’ Mifune’s Last Song (1999) and Levring’s The King Is Alive (2000).
As to make a Dogme film is basically just to conform to the ‘Vow of Chastity’, films of the movement were still being made across the world years after the original group made their films – the most recent documented film made under the Dogme rules was In Your Hands, which was released in 2004 by Annette K. Olesen. However, there is no official ‘Dogme Police’ that can strip a director of his/her certificate if the film is found to break the rules of the ‘Vow of Chastity’, whereas the original directors policed each other’s work to make sure it was an official Dogme film.
Nevertheless, errors did get past and film fans have long enjoyed trying to spot contraventions of the rules in these films. One element which is often quoted as a mistake but technically allowed under the rules is an instance of accordion playing in The Idiots. Clause Two states that “the sound must never be produced apart from the image,” yet the music in this instance is not taking place directly in the film. However, von Trier has since stated that the accordion was being played next to the camera, so the sound was still produced at the same time as the image, even though it was off-screen.
It seems the experimental nature inherent in the Dogme films has inspired Lars von Trier in many of his other projects. For example, Dogville (2003) takes place on a set created to look like a theatre stage, with the rooms solely chalked as outlines on a black floor. Vinterberg has also gone on to have success in Hollywood with a number of films, including It’s All About Love (2003), starring Joaquin Phoenix, Claire Danes and Sean Penn.
Dogme ‘95 has attracted controversy from its conception.
In 2000, a documentary was made by Saul Metzstein called The Name Of This Film Is Dogme ‘95, exploring the movement and featuring interviews with the original directors, although, at only fifty minutes long, the documentary fails to satisfy or answer the many questions audiences have about the films and filmmakers.
It is quite difficult to find many Dogme ‘95 films commercially available, other than Festen, The Idiots and The King Is Alive, so it is hard to find and see them; however, copies of the films do exist (and can be watched legally!), so make an effort to hunt them down if you can.
A fun exercise to try when watching other films is to attempt to spot the Dogme influences, as it has been said that filmmakers such as Quentin Tarantino have been inspired by the manifesto. When the movement first started, von Trier wrote letters to many directors inviting them to join, but had no responses. Akira Kurosawa died while his invitation was in the post, but perhaps the other invitees were apprehensive of the movement and did not want to risk their careers on an experiment that might not pay off.
Perhaps they were right to do so; no Dogme film has been really commercially successful, but that does not mean they are not worth seeing. At the very least, most of the films are unique and interesting and, at the very worst, they are provocative and test the limits of our endurance and ask important questions of ourselves.
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